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  • Finns, Magic and Murder February 18, 2014

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval, Modern , trackback

    sinking in storm

    ***Dedicated to Leif who always gets me good Viking stories!***

    There are Viking traditions dating back into the Middle Ages about the magic abilities of Finnish sorcerors (almost certainly Lapplanders). It is, though, bewildering to find a version of this belief surviving as late as the 1860s. This from a British newspaper.

    On Friday, Kar Anderson, 30, a Swede, was charged with the wilful murder of James Machin upon the high seas, and within the jurisdiction of the Admiralty England. The circumstances of this case were of a very extraordinary character. The prisoner shipped on board a British vessel called the Raby Castle at Penang on the 28th of September, on a voyage to England as able seaman and carpenter, and it appeared that during the voyage he was considered a person of weak intellect but perfectly harmless. The deceased was a mulatto, but the prisoner appeared to be under the delusion that [the deceased] was a Russian Fin, and it seems that there is some extraordinary superstition among the sailors that the presence of Russian Fin, board a vessel, is likely to lead to the destruction of that vessel, and the prisoner was frequently heard to mutter some incoherent observations to himself to the effect that he could not go on in this way, and that he must kill this Russian Fin or else they should never get to London. During the night of the of November, the prisoner had a watch on deck, and he appeared have gone to the bunk where the unfortunate deceased man was lying, and attacked him with a carpenter’s axe, and inflicted five desperate wounds upon his neck and shoulder, the effect of the formor injuries being to nearly sever the head from the body. The prisoner was immediately suspected the murderer, and he was seen to be wiping blood from his hands and to throw an axe overboard. He was asked how he had come to murder his comrade, and the reply he made was that if he had not done so, the ship would have gone on the rocks, and they would have all have been lost.

    The next sentence is particularly important because it suggests that the weather may have influenced Anderson, who was sentenced to death for this crime. Note that Finn magicians were famous for their control of the gales, as we’ve seen in the post linked above.

    There had been a heavy gale of wind blowing about the time, and there appeared to be no doubt that he had committed the act under the impression that, if he did nor kill the deceased, whom he supposed to be a Russian Fin, his own safety and the safety of the crew would be endangered. It also appeared that, in point of fact, there was no Russian Fin on board the vessel, and there did not seem to have been any quarrel… between the prisoner and the deceased man.

    Other late examples of this belief? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

    Thanks to Chris from Haunted Ohio Books for this collection, 18 Feb 2014:

    Some late-ish beliefs about Finns. I remember reading about a crew on the Great Lakes that refused to sale with a Finn, but can’t find the reference. I also have in my files a story from 1912 about the barkentine Arago. The Captain refused to sale because, for the first time, he didn’t have a Russian Finn aboard, who could neutralize the hoodoo that had become attached to the vessel. Once he got a new crew, which included the obligatory Finn, he was ready to go. The article is lengthy, but the headline reads: “Ship Hoodooed By Three Omens is Ready to Sail: Sailor Drowned at Start; No Russian Finn Aboard, and Black Cat Sick.” (The black cat was a good-luck mascot.) Powers Credited to Finns. But one of the most incomprehensible forms of sea superstition is that which has for its object the most prosaic of all seagoing people, the Finns. Russian Finns, seamen always call them, although there is far more of the Swede than the Russian about them, and their tongue is Swedish also. All things that appertain to a ship seem to come easily to their doing, from the time of first laying the vessel’s keel until, with every spar, sail, and item of running gear in its place, she strips her “kellick” and leaves the harbor behind her for the other side of the world. And even then the Finn will be found to yield to none in his knowledge of navigation. Although his hands may be gnarled and split with toil and his square, expressionless face looks as if “unskilled laborer” were imprinted upon it, much difficulty would be found in the search of a keener or more correct hand at trigonometrical problems or a better keeper of that most useful document, a ship’s log-book. Yet to these men by common consent a supernatural status has been assigned. Whether among the Latins the same idea holds is somewhat doubtful, but certainly in British, American and Scandinavian vessels Finns are always credited with characteristics which a century ago would have involved them in many unpleasantnesses. Chiefly harmless, no doubt, these weird powers, yet when your stolid shipmate is firmly believed to control the winds so masterfully as to supply his favored friends with a quartering breeze while all the rest of the surrounding vessels have a “dead muzzler,” any affection you may have had for him is seriously liable to degenerate into fear. It is perhaps hardly necessary to say that form whatever the original idea of Finnish necromancy originally arose a whole host of legends have grown up, many of them two trivial to print, some delightfully quaint, others not less original than lewd, but all evidently grafts of fancy upon some parent stock. Thus, while there is a rat in the ship no Finn was ever known to lose anything because it is well known that any rat in the full possession of his faculties would be only too glad to wait upon the humblest Finn. And the reason why Finns are always fat is because they have only to go and stick their knives in the foremast to effect a total change in their meat to whatever they fancy most keenly at the time. It is well that they are mostly temperate men, since everybody knows that they can draw any liquor they like from the water breakers by turning their cap around, and they never write letters home because the birds that hover around the ship are proud to bear their messages whithersoever they list. The catalogue of their privileges might be greatly extended were it needful, but one thing always strikes an unbiased observer—the Finn is, almost without exception, of the humblest, quietest of seafarers, whose sole aim is to do what he is told as well as he can, to give as little trouble as possible, and where any post of responsibility is given him to show his appreciation of it by doing two men’s work, he fills up his leisure by devising schemes whereby he can do more. Anaconda [MT] Standard 28 October 1899: p. 8

    Curious how Finns do the same things regarding meat, drink, and animal familiars as landlubber witches. It is also interesting that they are regarded as great sailors and navigators. Today they seem to have transferred some of that ability to motorsport, particularly rally driving, which they take very seriously.

    These are some of the unlucky things which sailors believe,” went on the man of the sea, relighting his pipe, “but in addition to these things there are many others in which they place more or less faith. I have seen many old tars who believed that Finns, or Laplanders, had magic powers. The Finns are a strange, silent people, and have come to have the reputation of being wizards. It is thought that they can use this power for either good or bad, and as they are somewhat feared by the average sailor, he takes pains to be on good terms with them. It is generally believed that a Finn can make all the rats leave a ship if he wishes and that Finns have a great deal of control over the winds. They can raise a storm by spells and it is unwise to anger them. I have heard old sailors tell of certain Finns who were members of the same ship’s company with themselves in past voyages, who could send messages to absent friends on shore by gulls which would light upon the rigging at their call. They also told of a Finn who had a bottle of liquor from which he could drink several times every day without lowering the contents. It always remained just so full, day after day and week after week.

    Plain Dealer [Cleveland, OH] 18 October 1918: p. 5

    Charles Dana wrote about the Finns in 1840:

    The night after this event [a sailor drowning], when I went to the galley to get a light, I found the cook inclined to be talkative, so I sat down on the spars, and gave him an opportunity to hold a yarn. I was the more inclined to do so, as I found that he was full of the superstitions once more common among seamen, and which the recent death had waked up in his mind. He talked about George’s having spoken of his friends, and said he believed few men died without having a warning of it, which he supported by a great many stories of dreams, and of unusual behavior of men before death. From this he went on to other superstitions, the Flying Dutchman, &c, and talked rather mysteriously, having something evidently on his mind. At length he put his head out of the galley and looked carefully about to see if any one was within hearing, and, being satisfied on that point, asked me in a low tone: “I say! you know what countryman ‘e carpenter be?”

    “Yes,” said I – “he’s a German. “What kind of a German?” said the cook. “He belongs to Bremen,” said I. “Are you sure o’ dat ?” said he.

    I satisfied him on that point by saying that he could speak no language but the German and English.

    “I’m plaguy glad o’ dat,” said the cook. “I was mighty ‘fraid he was a Fin. I tell you what, I been plaguy civil to that man all the voyage.”

    I asked him the reason of this, and found that he was fully possessed with the notion that Fins are wizards, and especially have power over winds and storms. I tried to reason with him about it, but he had the best of all arguments, that from experience, at hand, and was not to be moved. He had been to the Sandwich Islands in a vessel in which the sail-maker was a Fin, and could do anything he was of a mind to. This sail-maker kept a junk bottle in his berth, which was always just half full of rum, though he got drunk upon it nearly every day. He had seen him sit for hours together, talking to this bottle, which he stood up before him on the table. The same man cut his throat in his berth, and everybody said he was possessed. He had heard of ships, too, beating up the gulf of Finland against a head wind, and having a ship heave in sight astern, overhaul, and pass them, with as fair a wind as could blow, and all studding-sails out, and find she was from Finland.

    “Oh, no!” said he; “I’ve seen too much o’ dem men to want to see ’em ‘board a ship. If dey can’t have dare own way, they’ll play the d__l with you.”

    As I still doubted, he said he would leave it to John, who was the oldest seaman aboard, and would know, if anybody did. John, to be sure, was the oldest, and at the same time the most ignorant, man in the ship; but I consented to have him called. The cook stated the matter to him, and John, as I anticipated, sided with the cook, and said that he himself had been in a ship where they had a head wind for a fortnight, and the captain found out at last that one of the men, with whom he had had some hard words a short time before, was a Fin, and immediately told him if he didn’t stop the head wind he would shut him down in the fore peak. The Fin would not give in, and the captain shut him down in the fore peak, and would not give him anything to eat. The Fin held out for a day and a half, when he could not stand it any longer, and did something or other which brought the wind round again, and they let him up. “Dar,” said the cook, “what you tink o’ dat ?” I told him I had no doubt it was true, and that it would have been odd if the wind had not changed in fifteen days, Fin or no Fin.

    “O,” says he, “go ‘way! You tink, ’cause you been to college, you know better dan anybody. You know better dan dem as ‘as seen it wid der own eyes. You wait till you’ve been to sea as long as I have, and den you ‘ll know.”

    Two Years Before the Mast, Charles Dana, 1840

    28 Feb 2014: Leif writes in ‘’There’s some confusion about the term ‘Russian Finn’, as well as the practice of controlling weather through magic (also known as ‘windselling’).  First, the term ‘Finn’ has two meanings in Norwegian.  The first referred to the Sami, the primitive people of northern Scandinavia.  The Sami themselves regard this usage as derogatory (as is the term ‘Lapp’), and the term is today mostly historical.  The second refers to the people of Finland– the Finnish.  These are entirely different peoples who speak different languages.  (Incidentally, the first known reference to Finns [Fenni] appears in Tacitus ‘Germania’. He was referring to the Sami.) Both peoples have produced many fine sailors–  the Sami who lived on the coast of Finnmark were both fishermen and boatbuilders.  Did 19th century sailors accurtely note the difference? Since Finland was an autonomous Russian territory from 1809-1917, we can assume that the term ‘Russian Finn’ is used to distinguish them from the Sami.  The 1912 story about the barkentine Arago  is telling when it states ‘their tongue is Swedish’, as it refers to the people of Finland in an entirely ignorant way.  In the story from the 1860s the murder, one Karl Anderson, could not tell a Finn from a mulatto. Was the writer better informed? Your 18 December 2013 post, Finns, Snow and Magic, contains an historical reference to Sami windselling in the notes.  Windselling has long been associated the the Sami,  but I have not heard of an association with the people of Finland. This leaves two possibilities: 1. Windselling was a Sami practice,  but sailing tradition incorrectly associated it with Finland.  2. Windselling was practice common to the Sami and the Finnish. Can anyone find a Finnish reference to windselling?’’ thanks Leif!

    Mike writes, 30 Aug 2016: just discovered your blog and have particularly enjoyed the entries on Finns and weather magic – the sources you have found are very interesting. Of course there are small factual inaccuracies, particularly the Anaconda Standard cutting from 1899 which would have it that “It is well that they are mostly temperate men”, but back then even more than now Finland was a strange unknown country on the edge of the world. Unfortunately so much Finnish history from before the mid-15th century or so must remain speculation as the ancient Finns didn’t write and built in wood. Certainly there are references from Viking sources mentioning their reputation as sorcerers, while within Finland, as noted in your post, it was the Saami who had the reputation of being witches/sorcerers (noita in Finnish, noaidi in Saami). Interestingly the first known writing in an old form of Karelian/Finnish appears to be a spell or invocation of some sort https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Birch_bark_letter_no._292. This is reflected in the Kalevala as well, where the people of Kaleva (presumably Karelians or other Finns from the east or south) fight against Pohjola (land of the north, ruled by the evil hag witch of the north). But the Finnish (that is Suomi in Finnish) and Saami are related people and languages, and before Christianisation shared a similar shamanistic culture – however this survived until recent times in Lapland – they say the last ‘lentonoita’ (powerful witches who could fly) died in 1962, but who knows but that the tradition survives in secret? – and also until the 19th century or even early 20th in the remoter corners of Karelia, while most of south and west Finland/Ostrobothnia were fully Christianised centuries previously and the pagan tradition stamped out.